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GM Advice: The Price of Failure is…

by Creighton Broadhurst

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eath is the ultimate punishment for failure, but a
cunning and subtle (or merciful) GM can
“reward” failure without wiping out the party!
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

I recently blogged about the variant rewards the PCs might receive in
lieu of gold or magic. Thus it only seemed right and proper to take a
look at the punishments a GM could employ instead of killing a PC or
presiding over a TPK. While death is a vital part of he game, it is often
rather permanent – which can suck if a player has run a PC for two
years. Sometimes, other options exist:

Banishment: For truly heinous crimes or failure, the PCs could

be banished from a city or kingdom. This is particularly bad if the
PCs are banished from their home. However, their quest for
forgiveness can be an excellent subplot in a campaign that could
takes years of game play to resolve.
Cursed: A powerful spellcaster may curse the PCs if they fail to
complete their quest. Alternatively, a PC’s deity could be
displeased with his conduct and require him to make amends.
This curse could have actual game mechanic related penalties or
could purely be a matter for role-playing and character
development. The curse remains until the PC redeems himself.

Disfigurement: If a character suffers enough damage to die,

kindly GM can instead determine he suffers some kind of
permanent disfigurement. This could be a purely cosmetic
disfigurement or one that has an impact on his abilities or
mobility. Think carefully, before inflicting horrific injuries on a
character. Sure, playing a one-legged dwarf can be fun (as I
personally can attest) but make certain the player is on-board
before proceeding.

Failed Quests Have Consequences: If the PCs fail a quest, it

often means a villain’s scheme succeeds. Such successful plots
could (and should) have an effect on the game world. Having the
PCs experience these consequences is a great way for the GM to
build depth to his game world and can even act as an catalyst for
future adventures.

Fines or Confiscation of Property: PCs love their shiny

treasure, so being fined for failure can be a harsh punishment.
Leaving an adventure with less treasure than you went in with is
not ideal, but it’s better than dying!

Imprisonment: The PCs could be imprisoned – perhaps for a

certain amount of time or until they are sacrificed to some dark
power. Alternatively, the PCs could go free once a hefty ransom
has been paid. Rather than the end of the campaign, the party
are thrust into a new and exciting position; they must escape! (If
you are going to go down this route, it is best to also provide a
means for the party to recover at least the lion’s share of their
Loss of Reputation: If the PCs run away, or publicly fail to help
someone in need, their reputation can suffer. From being seen as
defenders of the people, they can be tarnished with the brush of
cowardice. Shopkeepers could refuse to serve them – or charge
more for their services – while commoners could stop helping the
party in fear of being associated with them.

Reoccurring Villain: If they fail to kill him, the PCs’ enemy likely
escapes. Reoccurring villains can be a fun part of any campaign –
if not overdone. Such folk, have the advantage over a normal
villain in upcoming encounters as they already know much of the
PCs’ tactics and capabilities. (Also, PCs love to kill re-occurring

Help Fellow GMs!

Have your PCs suffered in other ways as a result of a failed adventure?
Share their woes in the comments below and help GMs all over the
world punish their PCs in new, inventive ways!

Creighton Broadhurst
Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award
winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many
critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the
Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat
Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

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Categories: Gaming Advice, GM Advice Posted on Monday, February 23, 2015

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9 thoughts on “GM Advice: The Price of Failure is…”

Sean Young says: Reply
February 24, 2015 at 21:05

I had the displeasure of a TPK in a first or second edition

AD&D game I was starting. first level characters, come into a
room with 4 stirges in it. You know how thirsty they can be!
(at least in the older versions.) So, they’d latch on, and suck
a poor character dry as they flailed around with high THAC0s
trying to hit the damn things. The only survivor was my
girlfriend at the time, (now wife), who happened to be going
out of the dungeon to get a cart for transport of the loot back
to town. She gets back and sees the fat, bloated and sleeping
stirges in the room, and the party dead on the floor. So we
had to make all new characters for the crew and her
character had quite the harrowing tale about her “First

In a different campaign, we were all a loose group of town

leaders/council, of a small Village after a huge plague had
decimated the countryside about 200 years earlier.
Civilization was finally coming around again, and we were
trying to get trade agreements for local towns and such. A
gypsy type group was traveling through with their caravan,
and stopped in town. We were a bit suspicious, and when
later that night, the old fortune teller looked like she was
casting a spell of some sort. One of our characters, (mine?)
ended up shooting her with an arrow. The next morning they
did not seemed pleased to see us. The running joke in the
campaign thereafter was “Sorry we shot your mom, (it was
the leader’s mother, Doh!), or “So, um… were still going to
have a trade agreement for when you return in spring?”

Creighton Broadhurst says: Reply

February 25, 2015 at 09:08
I can *so* see some of my own group using the
“diplomacy via arrows” approach.

Jeff says: Reply

March 4, 2015 at 07:20

After reading the Desert of Desolation series awhile back I

was struck with how artificial the beginning was. The players
are framed and sent to the desert with no chance to defend
themselves. I couldn’t help put feel that it should be the
result of the players failing. So I created a short “rescue the
queen” adventure. The players would have to be super clever
to succeed and failure results in being sent off to the desert!

I have really embraced the idea that the players can fail
sometimes. And it should be set up in the story as a plot

Stephen Paterson says: Reply

February 14, 2016 at 00:21

Desert of Desolation is a poorly thought-out “political”

series. It sounds artificial, well, because IT IS! I find
it’s better just to assign the narrative, and just treat it
as “One of your allies could use some assistance…so,
here’s the idea.”

Derek says: Reply

May 4, 2015 at 23:04

I’ve done a few of these and it’s caused a few players to leave
or be very upset with me because I didn’t just let them win.
The curse I’ve had to use on a PC because he was chaotic
dickish, killed a guy for xp (which I gave him 0 for), was very
loud about it, then snuck away to let the rest of the party
take the fall. Their deity was not pleased, but he was godless
and didn’t care. When he got cursed, it was like dealing with
a kid ready to throw a tantrum. The group disbanded not long
after that.
Good ideas, and I’ve used a few, but players are fickle.

Alex Huff says: Reply

May 14, 2015 at 05:55

My PC’s in one campaign kept entering, partly clearing, and

then fleeing from a drider besieged dwarven city. They then
adventured else ware for a time and came back. The dwarves
were all dead or enslaved and Driders were now totally in
power in that city. Though the party did come back with a
small army (they promised they would) it was hopelessly too
late for the original denizens.

Thomas Blair says: Reply

December 18, 2015 at 09:02

All great for players 40+ those that are mature enough to
accept “most” options as an alternative.Then again death can
be merciful in some cases.I ALWAYS give the option of
CHANCE at three times to get em off to the temple or some
such.Then after that they deal with fate dealt to them for bad
or worse.See this way be it a traveling healer, a God or some
magical fountain can breath a sigh of relief back into the
session the players are happy with.When you present this as
a house rule its a fair one-three strikes and your out.

Thomas Blair says: Reply

December 18, 2015 at 09:04
Aside from what players can do already with their
toons i might add..

Keith Davies says: Reply

October 24, 2016 at 17:36

Some time ago I explored the idea of Death vs. It Gets

Worse, where running out of hit points basically means “PC
loses agency for a time” and then has to deal with a new
situation, rather than “player needs to roll up a new

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